The young man was nearly dead. The rays of Aniela’s lantern showed her a trail of glistening black that snaked away from the garden into the fields beyond, ending with the near-corpse at her feet. There could hardly have been a drop of blood left in his body. His face was torn, his fingers mangled from dragging himself across the ground, but the largest part of the problem seemed to be the small, round hole in his jacket, matched by another, slightly larger, on the other side, just beneath his ribcage. But even before she saw his injuries, she had known; the smell of corruption squatted heavy in the garden with its own malign presence.
Aniela set the lantern down and carefully cut the cloth away from the belly wound, finding shiny blue flesh underneath. The veins stood out black and angry beneath his skin, and she knew that whatever blood he had left was poisoned by the rot.
“Polak?” she asked quietly as she unbuckled his musket strap and set the gun aside, “czy Rosjanin?”
He groaned in response, and with the last of his strength, forced his bloodied hand up to his lapels.
Aniela brushed his hand aside and slipped two fingers beneath his jacket, coming up with a small leather wallet from an interior pocket. Inside, under glass, were a profile-portrait and a coiled lock of auburn hair, though from a woman living or dead, Aniela could not say. In a small pocket behind the memento were similar cut-paper profiles of five girls, the youngest no more than an infant.
“Proszę,” he whispered. Please.
And she remembered him, the days and years, the fighting and the resentment and the difficulty, and everything else that was soon to be. She remembered the wife, Nataszia, and her outrage, and the girls growing up with a father, but not the one who left home. It was past time, really – far past time to build another family.
“So, this is how it happens.”
Leaving the gun where it lay, Aniela lifted the dying man in her wiry, old arms and bore him into the warmth of the house. He looked even worse by candlelight, though she could see the potential for an innocent sort of comeliness in his battered face. She pricked her finger and painted his tattered lips with red, performing the same service for the holes in his sides. When he was thus anointed, she took a bit back; he did not react when her eyeteeth pierced the heel of his hand.
“You’ll be with them again,” Aniela promised. She stroked his hair until his sluggish heart stopped.
The Cold: The Third Book of Lost Knowledge © 2011 MR Graham